Last week, Prime Minister Kamal Persad-Bissessar of the People’s Partnership (PP) government, made another effort to stabilize her team with her third Cabinet reshuffle in the three years since the general elections that saw the ouster of then Prime Minster Patrick Manning and the Peoples National Movement (PNM) from office. This time the reshuffle which was undoubtedly the outcome of the victory of the now infamous Jack Warner in the end of July by-election in Chaguanas West, led to the defection of one PP member of the Senate, and the joining of the former PP Minister of Justice Herbert Volney to Warner’s Independent Labour Party.
The reshuffle also reflected a spate of crime, including murders, which the Prime Minister responded to by recalling to office, this time as the third Minister of National Security in the government’s life, a former army officer Gary Griffith who has in recent times openly expressed his disgruntlement at the course of things in the PP administration.
Even more surprising, however, was the Prime Minister’s open appeal to all political ranks, including the PNM to join her in a national government, in order, ostensibly, to deal with the crime rampages, an appeal which was, naturally, rejected by PNM leader Keith Rowley, now more than ever smelling blood.
But the appeal for national unity seems to have been made by the Prime Minister as much to her Congress of the People (COP) colleagues in the People’s’ Partnership who seem to be increasingly disillusioned by the Prime Minister’s ostensible disregard of their positions, particularly since the removal of Dr Winston Dookeran from the Ministry of Finance. For this seemed to the COP to be a de facto attempt at running the administration on the basis of UNC positions, excessively influenced by a small group from that party led by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Minister of Housing Roodal Moonilal. Statements emanating from the COP members of the coalition government suggest that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has imagined herself to be, in reality, running a government constituted of only one party.
The defeat of the PP (in effect the UNC) in the Chaguanas West constituency has caused doubts about the ability of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to hold things together until the general elections due, at a maximum, in two years. A sense of this within the PP itself is suggested by the sudden decision of the government to pass legislation that will permit the holding of local government elections by October on the basis of proportional representation.
This decision must be like a red flag to a bull as far as the PNM is concerned, the party, since the era of Eric Williams, having often seen proportional representation as a mechanism, desperately introduced, to break its own strength. The supposition now, on the part of the PNM, must be that if the local government elections, held on that basis, prove favourable to the UNC faction of the PP, an attempt might well be made to introduce the mechanism into national elections.
But a continuing concern for Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar must be her failure to maintain the unity of the COP, reality having demonstrated that this seemed to be the only method of defeating the PNM. The removal of Winston Dookeran, a professional economist, from the Ministry of Finance, signalled early in the game that all could not be well in the COP ranks. But it is probably fair to say that it is Dookeran’s personality, not normally prone to precipitate action, that has kept the coalition together.
Whether, in any case, the Prime Minister will be allowed to pay much deference to the COP by forces which, prior to Jack Warner’s defection, called for UNC consolidation, is left to be seen. Fear of the presence and energy of a Jack Warner seems likely, in spite of the Prime Minister’s call for some form of national government, to induce the UNC to huddle within itself, and to try to use the machinery of the state in substantial project expenditure over the next few years, to draw their supporters back.
On the other hand, there is some speculation over whether the PNM under Keith Rowley has really been making sufficient headway to regain the reins of power in the face of what seems likely to be a determined effort by Warner to penetrate areas of base support of the PNM where over many years constituents would appear to have made little economic headway, and which have become rampaged by criminal activity.
Warner’s obvious strategy is to seek to break elements of the core strength of both parties, so that following general elections, he can play the role of broker between them, and therefore gain a decisive base of influence, if not leadership, in whatever coalition is likely to be formed.
Warner also probably believes that the Chaguanas West by-election suggests that the bogey of allegations made against him in the FIFA matter, and American interest in it, may well have now been broken, allowing him free rein to organize as a new alternative to both parties, portrayed as having had their fair share of government, with little benefit to the mass of the people of either ethnic origin.
Against that background, this week’s PP Cabinet reshuffle seems to be but one element in an emerging pattern of developments affecting all the political players in Trinidad.